The last ten years have produced many ups and downs in NASCAR. Here is a list of the five best moments of the decade.
1. Network television contract. Prior to 2001 NASCAR had no television broadcast deal. Each individual speedway negotiated the rights to air its events. The historic 1979 Daytona 500 began an accelerated growth in popularity. Ten years later, 1989 was the first season in which every then-Winston Cup race was televised live. The 90s continued the increase in viewers and fans, and there were talks for years that NASCAR would make an attempt to bring its top series under one television umbrella. Finally in 1999 the attempt was put forth and network bids were made. The announcement was made that 2001 would be the start of a $2.4 billion, six-year broadcast arrangement with Fox, NBC and TBS. Soon thereafter TNT took over TBS’s rights. This left 2000 as the year speedways could run out their current individual contracts. Twenty-six races were aired in 2001 on network signals and ten on cable, compared to only ten networks and twenty-four cable broadcasts in 2000.
2. Pepsi 400, July 7, 2001. Dale Earnhardt’s death in February’s Daytona 500 was arguably the biggest story the sport has ever seen. When the Cup tour returned there for the summer race a spotlight was on the sport from racing and non-racing media. Dale Earnhardt Jr. captured the focus of many views in what was a precursor to his future attention. On this night reality imitated a Hollywood story line. Dale Jr.’s car showed immense power and could pull out of the draft and singly overtake other cars lined nose-to-tail. But the feel-good script did not just end with just first position. Pushing Earnhardt across the finish line was his DEI teammate Michael Waltrip in second place. Waltrip had little time to celebrate in February after his 500 victory and had his chance in the grassy tri-oval area after the July checkered flag. Both men climbed aboard their cars with their teams yelling, screaming and hugging in a happy moment that the sport needed.
3. HANS Device implementation. Dale Earnhardt’s legacy may not be his championships, wins, or intimidating style. But possibly the safety initiative push that followed his passing. The first I had ever heard of the Head And Neck Support device was in the 2001 running of the 24 Hours of Daytona sports car race held two weeks prior to the 500. Coincidentally Earnhardt Sr. and Jr. were both making their first career starts in the race as part of the Chevrolet Corvette’s two entries. Dr. Robert Hubbard invented the device in the 1980s, but the acceptance was slow in the motor racing world. Following Earnhardt’s death the HANS device’s usage snowballed and can now be found in multiple forms and levels of the sport.
4. Installation of SAFER barriers. Another piece of NASCAR’s safety push was the installation of Steel And Foam Energy Reduction barriers against speedway’s retaining walls. Other auto racing sanctioning bodies also had input in the design and development of the liners. These are steel surfaces backed by Styrofoam blocks and the unit is up against the concrete walls already around the speedways. Some violent crashes have produced great final sights - drivers climbing out of wreckage and walking away.
5. Four consecutive championships. Jimmie Johnson surpassed a record that only one man in the history of the sport had ever accomplished. Cale Yarborough claimed three consecutive Cup titles in 1976-77-78. The sport’s legends of Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon and Waltrip had never won more than two consecutively. Johnson has hoisted the championship trophy four seasons straight. In years to come people will proudly state they witnessed the historical feat in spite of the criticism Johnson receives now.
(Patrick Reynolds is a professional racing mechanic who has worked for several NASCAR teams.)
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